China Adagio: A Photographer’s 40-Year Visual Journey
A row of babies sleep inside rough bamboo baskets at a rural nursery in 1980s southern China; workers struggle to preserve the ruins of a factory destroyed during the 2008 earthquake that devastated southwest China’s Sichuan province; a lonely figure plants trees in the middle of the vast Tengger Desert.
These are just a few of the haunting images from “China Adagio” — a new book collecting the work of the photographer Andrew S.T. Wong, who has been documenting China’s rise for nearly 40 years.
Wong started his career as a photojournalist for the American news agency United Press International in 1983, before joining Reuters when the companies merged two years later. Over the next two decades, he would travel on assignments all over China, documenting the country’s transformation as it integrated into the global economy. He led the team that recorded the funeral of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, and eventually rose to become Reuters’ chief photographer in the country.
However, Wong eventually began to chafe against the conservative aesthetic style used by Western news agencies. The framing of every photo had to be exactly horizontal, and there was enormous pressure to produce work that sold well. So, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he decided to take the plunge and become an independent photographer.
Since then, he has continued to travel widely around China, trying to capture the country’s extraordinary diversity. As a Hong Kong native, he feels his work differs from that of his foreign colleagues. He has a knack for candid shots, which show his subjects during relaxed moments.
“I have my advantages — I’m a bit Eastern and a bit Western,” Wong tells Sixth Tone. “I can look at China from a Chinese perspective, using the Chinese history, culture, and art that I have studied.”
Wong has a particular passion for observing the lives of people in China’s hinterlands — the parts of the country that are rarely covered by the media. In recent years, he has participated in several public welfare projects, including an afforestation campaign in a remote, arid part of northwest China. These trips left a deep impression on him, he says.
“China is a very big country. The local culture of each province, county, and village is different. The gap between the rich and the poor is astonishingly huge, and the education gap is very severe,” he says. “When I went to the most grassroots places and saw some people trying to change the status quo, that’s very impressive.”
China has undergone immense changes from the impoverished nation Wong first began covering in the early 1980s. For Wong, however, the most profound change he’s witnessed hasn’t been economic, but psychological — the growing sense of confidence and national pride that has spread through China in recent years.
“In the past, many people thought that the best culture and technology was in the West, and they hoped to learn a lot from the West,” says Wong. “I think the last 20 years have seen the fastest development. Chinese people’s self-confidence has become stronger, and they have begun to look at the West with an equal eye.”
Editors: Dominic Morgan and Ding Yining.
(Header image: Travelers wait at a bus stop on a main road in Jiangdu, now part of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, 1984. Courtesy of Andrew Wong)